CREDO Tip: Yes, your phone could be listening to you. Here’s what you can do.

Your Phone Could Be Listening
Your Phone Could Be Listening

Yes, your phone could be listening to you. Here’s what you can do.

Your phone could be listening to you – hearing what you say and then pushing ads according to what it thinks your interests are.

This is the analysis of at least one expert, Dr. Peter Henway, senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk, whose conversation with VICE sparked a flurry of online investigation of the listening-phone phenomenon.

You may have suspected it already. Let’s say you’re sitting with a friend at a cafe, your phone is on the table and you’re talking about some totally random topic – like growing geraniums. Then, within hours, you’re seeing ads for geranium seeds on your social media pages.

How does this happen? Here’s how, according Henway: Your phone is, in fact, always listening.

Apple and Google claim that their virtual assistants ignore everything you say unless it’s preceded by these trigger words. But Henway points out that what you say can also be heard by any other apps that have access to your device’s microphone – and these apps may use what they hear to push ads at you, Henway speculates.

“Snippets of audio do go back to [other apps’] servers but there’s no official understanding of what the triggers for that are,” Henway told VICE. “Whether it’s timing- or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”

Translation: Just as your Android phone listens for the words “OK Google,” other apps with permission to access your microphone are listening for their own trigger words – thousands of them – which Henway believes could prompt the apps to begin the process that ends with you receiving a targeted ad.

Henway told VICE “Really, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. It makes good sense from a marketing standpoint, and their end-use agreements and the law both allow it, so I would assume they’re doing it.”

Google and Apple deny listening in on user conversations and selling that data to advertisers. Mark Zuckerberg also denied that Facebook eavesdrops on conversations. In April 2018, he told the Senate that his company does not use audio collected from phones to target ads.

Of course, given Zuckerberg’s open relationship with the truth, it is perfectly reasonable to disbelieve him. In August, it emerged that Facebook was paying outside contractors to listen to audio of users’ private conversations and transcribe what they heard. And Facebook is not the only tech giant caught with its ear to your phone. Reports came out in July that Apple hired contractors to listen to and transcribe audio captured by Siri.

So, yes, it is a very real possibility you have apps on your phone that are eavesdropping – and at least some of them could be using what they hear to serve you ads. 

Do you care? An eavesdropping phone may seem no worse than websites that track your activity online. Or it may really creep you out to know your phone is listening to you all the time. 

If that’s the case, here’s what you can do: Stop apps from accessing your microphone.

On your Android device, open Settings, then tap Apps or Application Manager (depending on the device). Tap the app you want to check on, then tap Permissions to see what the app is accessing. It might be accessing your microphone, your camera and your contacts. You can turn these permissions off.

On your iPhone, open Settings, swipe down and tap Privacy. Then tap Microphone and toggle off permission for any apps that you think should not have access to your microphone. To stop apps accessing your camera, tap Privacy, then tap Camera.

Here at CREDO, we take customer privacy very seriously. In fact, respecting our customers’ privacy rights is a core mission of our company and we have a long history of fighting to protect it. Learn more about our record of fighting for privacy.